Alana Valentine says she’s sick of plays always about angry young blokes or dysfunctional middle-class families. In her latest play, Parramatta Girls, she tells a very different story, about eight women re-living the abuse and shame they suffered while institutionalised in Parramatta Girls Home.
The impact is immediate with Ralph Myers’s chilly set of dirty cream walls, high institutional windows and scattered steel chairs and beds -“ complete with the sad sound of a dripping tap. Former inmates are gathering for a reunion, just as the real-life ones did in 2003 when Valentine first met them and found her inspiration.
Now as adults, some strut in with brash and vulgar words, some weep shyly, another sits in the corner still traumatised by being locked up for reasons she never knew. Eventually we hear their stories as the play unfolds and in quick scenes they return to being girls together in their training smocks.
Valentine interviewed the original women and her script has the detail and absurdities that could only come from real life. How, they ask, could you tell if girls have criminal natures? Having freckles, short arms or pointy boobs must have something to do with it. And being black, say the indigenous girls. But then all agree that in this brutal training school there is no differentiation, no black and white -“ just black and blue.
While her research is impeccable and illuminating, Valentine is skilled at moulding it into a compelling drama and distilling all the life stories into eight diverse characters. She and director Wesley Enoch are also well served by a fine cast.
Mature actors Valerie Bader, Carole Skinner and Annie Byron deliver powerful performances as women resolved but still scarred by pain. Jeannette Cronin plays a louder woman, her chin now frozen into defiance -“ but the bravado isn’t there when we see her as a girl cutting open her veins. Leah Purcell also excels as the timid ing?e who ends up leading the riot.
Most of the past demons are buried by the cathartic end of the play. And tears mixed with applause when the real Parramatta Girls joined the actors at the opening night curtain call.
Seeing them made me wish Valentine had concentrated even more on the women they became, rather than the abuse they knew as girls. This though remains an absorbing and joyful play about female resilience.
Parramatta Girls is at Belvoir Street Theatre until 22 April.